The Innocents writer-director Eskil Vogt has an interesting quality in a horror filmmaker: He doesn’t buy into the concept of good and evil.
His mesmerizing new film follows young children living in a Norwegian apartment complex who explore their secret telekinetic and telepathic powers when the adults are away. Like all children, they occasionally do terrible things with no awareness of consequences or morality.
The idea of what it means to be a good or bad person — if such a thing exists — also comes up in last year’s provocative blend of rom-com and drama, The Worst Person in the World, which Vogt co-wrote. (He and his frequent collaborator, Worst Person in the World director Joachim Trier, shared an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.)
The Innocents and The Worst Person in the World both debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and Vogt was grateful they were such different films, so they wouldn’t draw comparisons. But they do share some commonalities, and one is their treatment of good and evil.
“When I write any character, it’s not my job to judge them,” Vogt says. “You know, I’m very judgmental, very political, in my opinions in real life. But when I write something, it’s not that interesting to be judgmental. You want to understand people, and people have their reasons. I don’t have this Christian worldview that a lot of especially horror movies have, that it’s good and bad, black and white, evil and good, God and the devil, etc.
“I don’t believe in that. I believe that good and evil are just words we use to describe that we all have impulses that are destructive, emotions that are too powerful and negative. And we have better impulses, and we have the possibility of empathy… everyone has all of that. And to be productive members of society, we have to control some of the negative stuff. And of course, it’s easy to say that’s good and that’s bad and evil, but it’s all part of being human. We should accept also those bad feelings as part of our humanity.”
The Innocents has none of the usual jump-scares or other calling cards of modern horror, because Vogt wants it to be, most of all, a film about childhood.
In the film, 9-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her slightly older autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) move into a towering apartment complex, surrounded by woods, when their father gets a new job. With many kids away for the summer, they spend most of their days with Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) and Ben (Sam Ashraf).
Aisha has an extremely positive influence on Anna, but Ben pulls Ida into behavior she finds more and more upsetting. Eventually, the children break into a massive, high-stakes power struggle of which the adults are completely unaware.
In The Worst Person in the World, Julie (Renate Reinsve), a very smart but adrift millennial, makes a relationship decision that later makes her feel deeply guilty. What starts as a fun, light story about pairing off becomes a harrowing, cathartic examination of what matters most in life.
Both films treat their characters with empathy even when they do things that may sound, on paper, immoral.
And they are both coming-of-age stories, says Vogt, who doesn’t believe coming-of-age has to mean becoming an adult.
“We’re always coming of age, aren’t we? That’s part of living — we ‘ll come of age until we die.”
The Innocents is now in theaters and available on video on demand.
Main image: Rakel Lenora Fløttum as Ida in Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents, directed by Eskil Vogt, courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.